Southern Africa has a remarkably diverse and species-rich herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles, collectively), ranking as the most biologically diverse area on the African continent. In his 2001 book Amphibians of Central and Southern Africa, Allan Channing mentions that frogs (Anura) and the worm-like caecilians (Apoda) – but not the tailed salamanders (Caudata) – are the two groups of amphibians found on the subcontinent.  According to him, more than 200 species were known at the time and the number is still growing, mainly as a result of increasing interest in these fascinating animals and the advent of DNA-based diagnostic methods. Frogs, for example, are found in diverse habitats ranging from trees to mountain tops, to deserts, which make them an ideal group for investigating a broad spectrum of ecological and evolutionary questions.  Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, they are useful as indicators of environmental integrity. 

As for reptiles, representatives from three of the four groups are found on the subcontinent. This includes tortoises (terrestrial species), terrapins (freshwater species), and turtles (marine species), constituting the Chelonia. There are also crocodiles (Crocodylia) and snakes, lizards and worm-lizards (Squamata). Details about the diversity on the subcontinent are summarised by Bill Branch on the Southern African Reptile Conservation Atlas (SARCA) website. According to him, there are 498 reptile species (578 taxa if subspecies are included) in 116 genera and 23 families. As in the case of amphibians, these species occupy just about every conceivable niche, providing wonderful opportunities for ecological and evolutionary biological studies.

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Research Focus

The research focus of the herpetology group is broad, covering functional morphology, general ecology, phylogeny, phylogeography, population genetics and taxonomy of frogs, lizards, snakes and tortoises. The range of projects which can be carried out under these topics is vast, given our country’s exceptional amphibian and reptile diversity.

Functional morphology deals with structure and function of the body and its parts, focusing on questions about adaptations for functional efficiency. Research methods include dissection and microscopic analysis.  

General ecology deals with reproduction, sexual size dimorphism, predation, diet and parasitic worm infections, and asks questions about adaptations which enable species to survive in their respective habitats. Analytical methods include dissection, histology, gravimetric analysis and morphometrics.

Phylogenetic, phylogeographic, population genetics and taxonomic studies deal with evolutionary relationships among organisms, patterns of lineage branching and their causes, improving the accuracy of our documented taxonomic diversity and highlighting populations with evolutionary potential as well as ones of conservation concern. Methodologies involve mitochondrial and nuclear DNA markers, including microsatellites, and comparative morphology and morphometrics, along with standard and current analytical programmes.

Species currently studied are the legless skink Acontias occidentalis, the semi-legless skinks Scelotes gronovii and kasneri, the berg adder Bitis atropos, the tent tortoise Psammobates tentorius and the greater padloper tortoise Homopus femoralis.

Research team

Prof. Neil Heideman, Lindi Heyns, Dr. Falko Buschke, master’s student Adriaan Jordaan, PhD students Tamson Foster and Zhongning Zhao, postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Joaquin Verdu Ricoy, collaborators Prof. Retha Hofmeyr and Dr. Martin Hendricks (University of the Western Cape), Dr. Brian Wilson (Western Cape Education Department), Fadli Wagiet (UWC, retired), Armand Bester and Jaco Oosthuizen (Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State), and research associate Dr. Mike Bates (Bloemfontein National Museum).

Postgraduate students and research titles

Adriaan Jordaan, MSc: Geographic distribution and habitat selection in the berg adder, Bitis atropos (Serpentes, Viperidae) on the Mpumalanga escarpment, and the consequences for conservation.

Tamson Foster, PhD: Phylogeography, morphology, population genetics and related ecological aspects of the greater padloper, Homopus femoralis.

Zhongning Zhao, PhD: A phylogenetic analysis of the tent tortoise Psammobates tentorius (Bell, 1828) species complex, using molecular and morphological markers.


FACULTY CONTACT

Faculty Manager: Velaphi Makgwahla
T: + 27 51 401 3199
E: makgwahlamvt@ufs.ac.za

Marketing Manager: Elfrieda Lötter
T: +27 51 401 2531
E: lottere@ufs.ac.za

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